13 best war movies of all time

Cameron Frew
Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer and a still from Grave of the Fireflies, two of the best war movies of all timeUniversal Pictures/Toho

War… war never changes, but the same can’t be said for cinema: from Oppenheimer to Grave of the Fireflies, these are the 13 best war movies of all time and where to stream them.

War is two-fold by nature: appalling in reality; enthralling in entertainment, and it makes for one helluva motion picture. We’ve long immersed ourselves in the throes of war on the big screen; the smell of napalm wafting across your nose, ditches full of corpses and grenade-popped limbs, relentlessly heart-aching losses, and sometimes, a hangover of disquietude at the horrors you’ve just seen.

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Much like any genre, it can bent to a filmmaker’s will; some are overtly gung-ho, patriotic puff pieces, others are more clinical and objective, while some are crafted as audio-visual polemics, directly batting against conflict(s).

To mark the release of Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s movie about the creation of the atomic bomb, we’ve put together a list of the best war movies ever made – who knows, maybe it’ll make the cut when it hits theaters.

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Contents

Best war movies ever made

Below, you’ll find our picks for the 12 best war movies of all time. We’ve also included where you can stream them, and further to that, we’ve perused each streaming service and picked out the greatest ones in their libraries.

Gallipoli

A still from Gallipoli, one of the best war moviesParamount Pictures

What it’s about: “Two Australian sprinters face the brutal realities of war when they are sent to fight in World War I.”

What we think: It’s the intimacy of Gallipoli that’ll bruise you; we follow these young, bright-eyed men, blinded by the joys of camaraderie and patriotism, only to be consumed by the futility of war. It’s a remarkable film with a final shot that aches long after the credits roll.

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Where to watch: On-demand

Master and Commander

A still from Master and Commander, one of the best war movies20th Century Studios

What it’s about: “A distinguished young captain of the British Navy leads his able crew – including his best friend, the ship’s doctor – on a mission to take a “phantom” French vessel with a fearsome reputation for sinking British ships.”

What we think: There’s quote-unquote “guy movies”, and then there’s Master and Commander, Peter Weir’s sweeping, swashbuckling tale of a Navy Captain sailing the high seas in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s possibly the most rewatchable movie on this list, thanks to its practical, old-school filmmaking and irresistible charm.

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Where to watch: Disney+ and on-demand

Inglorious Basterds

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds, one of the best war moviesUniversal Pictures

What it’s about: “In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, a plan to assassinate Nazi leaders by a group of Jewish U.S. soldiers coincides with a theater owner’s vengeful plans for the same.”

What we think: That’s a bingo! Inglorious Basterds is staunch, skull-cracking revision of history, laced with Tarantinoisms to make you whoop amid the bloodshed. Its excruciating, blood-chilling prologue Col. Hans Landa’s Jew-hunter may be the tensest opening scene of the century so far. This might just be his masterpiece.

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Where to watch: On-demand

Ran

A still from Ran, one of the best war moviesToho

What it’s about: “Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s visually dazzling samurai epic, is the story of Lord Hidetora and his three warring sons.”

What we think: King Lear by way of Akira Kurosawa is a delicious pitch, but the movie proved to be an immense breach of expectations; the enormity of its scale and visual oomph will leave you speechless, but that’s just one weapon of a master using everything in his arsenal.

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Where to watch: Prime Video and on-demand

The Thin Red Line

A still from The Thin Red Line, one of the best war movies20th Century Studios

What it’s about: “The men of Charlie Company try to take Guadalcanal Island from the Japanese in World War II.”

What we think: A movie of rare, genuine beauty; no matter how men enter war – gallantly, desperately, or forcibly – their souls quietly intertwine, and The Thin Red Line paints a moving picture of that tragic unity. It also boasts one of Hans Zimmer’s most powerful motifs.

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Where to watch: Starz and on-demand

Dr Strangelove

A still from Dr Strangelove, one of the best war moviesColumbia Pictures

What it’s about: “After the insane General Jack D. Ripper initiates a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, a war room full of politicians, generals and a Russian diplomat all frantically try to stop the nuclear strike.”

What we think: Before the sweary delights of Armando Iannucci and today’s unwritable politics, Dr Strangelove was a sharp, never-before-seen satire that treated war – specifically, the US’ paranoia and eagerness over nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union – with startling preposterousness and bite.

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Where to watch: On-demand

Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy in OppenheimerUniversal Pictures

What it’s about: Based on American Prometheus, Nolan’s latest movie explores the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer; more specifically, how he became the “father of the atomic bomb” and was forced to reckon with the weight of his catastrophic, extraordinary creation. 

What we think: Oppenheimer isn’t just the best movie Christopher Nolan has ever made: it’s the culmination of his directing oeuvre; a sense-rattling, precise behemoth of a film that shakes your bones and leaves you in a state of awe and disquiet. 

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Where to watch: Exclusively in cinemas 

Schindler’s List

A still from Schindler's List, one of the best war moviesUniversal Pictures

What it’s about: “The true story of how businessman Oskar Schindler saved over a thousand Jewish lives from the Nazis while they worked as slaves in his factory during World War II.”

What we think: Steven Spielberg made two movies in 1993: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Is it the greatest directing flex of all time? Yes, but the latter film is arguably the peak of his peerless marriage of craft and gut-punching emotionality; it’s a mesmerising, by-all-accounts sublime picture.

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Where to watch: On-demand

Full Metal Jacket

A still from Full Metal JacketWarner Bros.

What it’s about: “A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the U.S.-Vietnam War has on his fellow recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue.”

What we think: Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate picture is a tale of two halves, both skewering the war machine: a boot camp baptism by fire with electric dialogue; and a plunge into the casual, cold brutality of Vietnam. The first half is especially good, indebted to the vein-popping brilliance of R. Lee Ermey.

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Where to watch: Fubo TV and on-demand

Apocalypse Now

A still from Apocalypse Now, one of the best war moviesUnited Artists

What it’s about: “An Army captain’s secret mission becomes a journey into madness in Francis Ford Coppola’s spectacular drama of the Vietnam War.”

What we think: Francis Ford Coppola’s epic is the burning vision of a mad maestro. Through the fire and flames of its tortured production, it emerged as the definitive showcase of the horror, the horror of the Vietnam War – we’d opt for the theatrical cut, but the 4K Final Cut is just as worthy of your time.

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Where to watch: Only on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD

Saving Private Ryan

A still from Saving Private Ryan, one of the best war moviesParamount Pictures

What it’s about: “As U.S. troops storm the beaches of Normandy, three brothers lie dead on the battlefield, with a fourth trapped behind enemy lines. Ranger captain John Miller and seven men are tasked with penetrating German-held territory and bringing the boy home.”

What we think: Saving Private Ryan, which recently had it’s 25th anniversary, is a masterwork by Steven Spielberg. It achieves the feat of conveying both the terror and horrific beauty of war; look no further than the harrowing opening sequence on Omaha Beach, an action experience as seminal as it is timeless.

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Where to watch: Prime Video, Paramount+, and on-demand

Grave of the Fireflies

A still from Grave of the Fireflies, one of the best war moviesToho

What it’s about: “On the final days of World War II, 14-year-old Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko are orphaned after their mother is killed during an air-raid by American forces in Kobe, Japan.”

What we think: Perhaps the most profoundly painful animated movie ever made, Grave of the Fireflies is the haunting tale of two siblings fending for themselves in the ashes of bomb-battered Japan. It’s not just Studio Ghibli’s best film, but one that defines the very form it sits atop; your heart will be left in tatters.

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Where to watch: On-demand

Come and See

A still from Come and See, one of the best war moviesSovexportfilm

What it’s about: “After finding an old rifle, a young boy joins the Soviet resistance movement against ruthless German forces and experiences the horrors of World War II.”

What we think: The most disturbing movie you’ll ever see – and it isn’t even a horror film. This Soviet anti-war picture, the final work of Elem Klimov, confronts all of war’s idealism with its barbaric futility. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review, it’s “one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead.”

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Where to watch: On-demand

Now, while these are the best war movies ever made, not all of them are easily available. So, if you’re currently perusing your respective streaming platform in search of a war movie to watch, we’ve picked out five from Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, Max, and Peacock.

Best war movies on Netflix

Chadwick Boseman in Da 5 BloodsNetflix
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Da 5 Bloods
  • Outlaw King
  • Beasts of No Nation
  • The Siege of Jadotville

Best war movies on Prime Video

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw RidgeLionsgate
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Glory
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Paths of Glory
  • Ran

Best war movies on Hulu

Chris Hemsworth in 12 StrongLionsgate
  • Atonement
  • 12 Strong
  • The Act of Killing
  • The Book Thief
  • War Dogs

Best war movies on Max

A still from DunkirkWarner Bros.
  • Dunkirk
  • Platoon
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • The Wind Rises
  • Act of Valor

Best war movies on Peacock

A still from Saints and SoldiersExcel Entertainment Group
  • Saints and Soldiers
  • Fahrenheit 9/11
  • In this Corner of the World
  • The Ambush
  • The Messenger

You can also check out our list of the best horror movies on Shudder here, what’s new on Netflix this month here, and our other TV & movies coverage here.

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About The Author

Cameron is Deputy TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He's an action movie aficionado, '80s obsessive, Oscars enthusiast, and a staunch Scot. He earned a First-Class Honours Degree in Multimedia Journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University, accredited by the NCTJ and BJTC. He began his career at UNILAD, starting as a Junior Journalist and becoming Entertainment Editor prior to joining Dexerto. You can contact him at cameron.frew@dexerto.com.